Tuesday 26 April 2011


Yesterday, Poly Styrene succumbed to cancer and “won her battle to go to higher places.” She only ever made three albums, two of which nobody bothered listening to after she helpfully described as “more spiritual”. But that pioneering X Ray Spex release, ’Germ Free Adolescents’... that was enough in it's own right. 

It’s classic British punk at it’s best – noisy yet tuneful, brimming with inspiration and energy, disdainful of all convention. (Alas that such frenetic creativity couldn’t be maintained, and it all became yet another sorry uniform.) It contains two of the great punk lines – “I can’t even hesitate” and the arch put-down “did you do it before you read about it?”

Plus, in an era when women were still struggling for their rightful place in popular music, she was an icon as bright as a beacon. When I first saw her, singing the single ’Germ Free Adolescents’ on ’Top Of the Pops’ with a brace on her teeth, I had to turn over – it was all too much for me!

First Ari Up then Poly, alas it seems the good do die young...

Sunday 24 April 2011


For those of you who like pointless and almost certainly inaccurate conjecture – read on! (Something nearer to a proper review here.)

The more I think about it, the more significant Easter becomes...

Okay, there was no Easter setting, no toasting of hot cross buns or mention of fluffy bunnies who died for you. Just a Public holiday, a timely point to relaunch the series. But those invites clearly displayed the date. (Which, correct me if I’m wrong, wasn’t the actual date of broadcast but instead Good Friday.)

The Doctor calls his companions for a meal (okay, not a supper). Wine is drunk. He not only recognises his assassin, he even seems to be expecting all this – and still allows it to happen.

If River Song is too obvious a candidate for our spacesuited swimmer, how about Amy? You would of course expect her to show some sorrow in the circumstances, but it was laid on that her grief was the greatest. The aliens seem yet to offer her any pieces of silver, but that is maybe to come...


Spoilers! (Of a blue-book variety)

 Well I was pleased it wasn’t the Vashta Nerada.

When menacing spacesuits filled the trailers the fact that they’d appeared in an episode called ’Silence in the Library’, and the lack of decent new monsters last season, led to me putting two and two together - and coming up with a negative.

Not that I didn’t like them the first time. But their antagonism was an enabler of that storyline, rather than the core of it. And when for example the Angels came back, it wasn’t for a major twist for which we’ve been waiting a whole season.

Besides, this show has very few recurrent enemies. Most of them felt worn out by their second helping, if they ever got that far. That might seem odd. With superheroes, for example, a decent rogue’s gallery is an essential component of a series. But that doesn’t mean that most monsters have been sub-par. (Though of course a fair few have, over the years.) It just underlines the difference between a superhero and the Doctor. The Doctor doesn’t fight them so much as come to comprehend them, dispel their aura of menace to see what makes them tick. Once it was revealed who the Dream Lord or the Empty Child was, any reappearance would be pointless.

However, I am not sure I like the look of the ones we got.

 Generic rubber-suited ’Who’ monsters  I could cope with. But these looked generically generic, sci-fi aliens who could have walked off ’The X-Files’ or any such show from the Nineties onwards. (You were apparently supposed to think of the Munch painting ’The Scream’, though I don’t suppose anybody did.) This may well be part of the point, as there’s some Roswell-like goings-on afoot. But even so...

The script crackled along, and the four leads are now so comfortable in their roles you’re almost happy just hanging out with them. There were some neat lines, cool scenes and strong images. (If you’re reading this you probably know what the astronaut-out-the-lake was a homage to, but it’s still a strong image.)

But if you paused to consider this rapid succession of events it did start to feel like Moffat was reshuffling his pack – portmanteau openings, creepy child telephone calls, the Doctor dying then reappearing younger, don’t look away etc. Of course, every writer relies on tropes. I just wonder what would have happened if Moffat had said to himself, “Right. New season. New page. New stuff. Let’s see what else there is.”

I was somewhat thrown by Amy and Rory starting the episode sitting on the sofa. We’d previously been led to believe they weren’t letting a little thing like married life hang up their adventuring boots. But, as things went on, it became clear this performed a function.

We’ve already seen how River Song “does to the Doctor what he normally does to others, turn up from outside his timeline and upend his life.” But this time round her role is extended to Amy and Rory, they’ve become more her companions than the Doctor’s. (Plus it’s now laced with urgency, there’s things they really want to tell him but can’t.) Establishing their separate lives at the start enables this.

I’ve previously expressed concerns about the whole ‘crossing timelines’ business, which seems one of those things which are so much easier to switch on that off. And enough timelines were crossed here to make the whole thing look like spaghetti junction. However, River’s speech to Amy suggests that the previously pliable substance ‘timey wimey’ is hardening into something more fatalistic. If there’s an internal story reason for this, it’s yet to appear. But it’s going to be a necessary change to avoid a rewrite of ’The Big Bang’, to avoid “ah, my death, I’ll just pop back in my blue box and fix that.” (On the other hand if River’s speech turns out to be mere misdirection I will scream. And I am quite the screamer.)

But perhaps all a first episode needs to do is intrigue, and if so it certainly succeeded. I have found myself continually coming up with theories which I almost immediately reject, which I would expect to be a common response. (Rather than “silence will fall”, “the net will never shut up!” would be a more appropriate catch-phrase.)

With those spare spacesuits there’s signs they’re working in the urban myth about the moon landings being a hoax. (One variant of which has it that aliens have already got here.) Yet that would seem to vie with the show’s normal celebration of human ingenuity... It would seem a little too obvious for River Song to be the figure in the spacesuit. And I can’t see how she can be the girl on the phone, who has a clear American accent. (Unless BBC English rubbed off on her through association with the Doctor.) It is possible of course that she’s Amy’s child...

...on that note, Amy’s revelation she was pregnant came so much out of left field that it surely can’t be, and was given a strange degree of significance for someone who’s just got married. Is this one of the things the aliens told her to tell the Doctor? Is it possible she didn’t know herself until that moment? (She saw the aliens well before the others.) Does she have mixed feelings about her pregnancy? The girl in the spacesuit seemed like a metaphor for an unborn child, and she shoots at her...

..anyway I digress. Intrigue is fine for a first episode. And while this is a two-parter (why haven’t they been opening the show with two-parters all along?), this is clearly the set-up for the season, we won’t get all our answers next week. But a first part is not a season and questions do not nourish the soul. We need those answers, Moffat has promised us them and one not-really-a-finale is enough. Contrary to the risible ’X Files’ tag-line “the truth is out there”, we’re going to want some truth in here before too long.

Thursday 21 April 2011


TV Smith and the Valentines
The Hydrant (upstairs), Wed 30th March

Some, I’d sure, would class this one a guilty pleasure. TV Smith gets together with “glam punk” band the Valentines, to serve us up the best of the Adverts. True, up to now he’s been one of the original punk figures to explore new stuff and not attempt to keep living in 1977. And true, he was sporting what looked rather like the suit he wore to work, modified with spraypaint and stencils seconds before going on stage.

Yet his first words, as soon as he took the stage were “I’m in my mid-Fifties and I’m still pissed off!” (After a little audience prompting, he even mentions the massive anti-cuts demonstration of a few days before.) Ten years behind him, and I feel much the same. Punk was always primarily an outlet for negative energy, and there’s still plenty of that to go round. The music doesn’t just scratch a nostalgic itch, it flickers with life in your memory precisely because it still conveys that same sense of aggravation.

Mention punk to me and I will most likely think first of the old Ignition lyric, “I know what my anger means.” Despite what hardcore fundamentalists tell you, it’s not necessarily that they lyrics are political. In fact, other bands were more explicitly political than the Adverts. (And anyway, popular music had found politics long before punk.) It’s the music. It feels partisan, perpetually rousing itself in a war against boredom and ennui which may never end so long as the world’s still going. Perhaps it doesn’t do any of that for younger generations. But it still fans that fire for those of my time.

Resting on his laurels or keeping tuned into his roots? I doubt it was so simple as one or the other. But he rattled through the set like he meant it, man, and the glass was at the very least half-full...

This clip isn’t from Brighton, but it’s little more than a month later...

The Fallen Leaves
The Hydrant (downstairs, Sat. 16th April)

”Don’t follow the many, baby,
We are the few.”

So was classic-era British punk really about returning the clock from 1976 to 1966? Ex-Subway Secters Fallen Leaves would seem to suggest so. They come bedecked in cravats, waistcoats and neatly pressed check drainpipes, like they want to replay the very moment where mod met hippy. Their sound is white-heat amphetamine blues but with a hazy psychedelic edge, so they serve up both buzzsaw fuzz and shimmer. (Think early Kinks, or perhaps the Pretty Things.)

This might make for a neat comparison to their old frontman, whose return to gigging was reviewed on these shores last Summer. Though their self-description promises roughness (“pop played with passion rather than precision”), even without an adequate sound-check they’re actually a whole lot tighter than the band now under the name Subway Sect!

As said at the time, what makes Goddard so wrong as a frontman, what makes him a South London postie stuck inexplicably on a stage, is the very thing which makes him so right. Conversely, while Goddard poses as anybody, Rob Green is definitely somebody – he exudes charisma, merely of a bizarrely misplaced kind. He’s like a tweedy Thirties prep school teacher, haughty and aloof, looking disdainfully down on the back rows with elegant menace, finger permanently raised in the making of some point or other.

During instrumental breaks he turns his back upon us, hands clasped behind him like an eccentric Edwardian gentleman before the fire. At one point, he stops to pour out a flask of tea. (I think, however, he missed a trick by not sporting a pocket watch which he could consult.)

And there you have it. Subway Sect evade all expectations; even as you stand there watching them they slip through your sight’s grasp. Fallen Leaves have staked out their pitch, and live every inch of it. I think I might even prefer them out of the two. (But then they sport two ex-Secters to Goddard’s one, with guitarist Rob Symmonds.)

This gig was staged entirely for free by the good folks at Spinning Chilli. Knowing them from their pre-presenting days, I asked how they started. They explained they’d been in the habit of travelling out of town for music, then finally figured they could put bands on down here for the same money they were shelling out in petrol and hotels – and give everyone else a chance to see them! A welcome ‘Old Brighton’ attitude and a pleasant change to the current odious fixation with “business opportunities.” They even made the bar staff turn off’X Factor’! (Check out their site.)

While we are on those lines, the band themselves have a cool-looking site.

You may recognise the guitar line here...

Monday 18 April 2011


Plot Spoliers Ahoy!

Just when we’d all got used to saying that cinema had made a risible attempt at tackling the so-called War On Terror, with its paltry efforts eclipsed by TV, then two exceptions come along at once. Let’s start with ’Essential Killing’...

When I coined the term “landscape porn” while reviewing ‘The American’, someone even commended me for it in the comments section. Yet truth be told I was merely adding to an already over-stuffed array of such terms - property porn, grief porn, shelf porn, tech porn, riot porn... I expect any day now someone will look quizzically at ’Razzle’ magazine before exclaiming “its like porn porn!”

“Porn” is of course being used as a shorthand for a thing fetishised out of any context. But at the same time the immediacy of film, it’s ability to throw us straight in the deep end of a situation, is one of the form’s greatest assets. Here the landscape isn’t some sweet-looking backdrop, like a moving photoshoot. In ’Essential Killing’ the characters couldn’t be any more in that landscape.

And we’re taken into an unfamiliar landscape not once but twice. First we’re flung into the arid crevices and caves of Afghanistan (actually filmed in Israel) alongside some Americans on some unexplained mission. But pretty soon we’re with rendition victim Mohammed, who escapes his captors to be confronted by the snowy mountains of Poland. Both times, we see the landscape through foreign eyes.

It’s notable that creator Jerzy Skolimowski previously scripted ’Knife in the Water’, which similarly took characters we knew little of and thrust them deep into nature. But the chief difference here is that speech is so scant. For much of the time its’ used as a sound source rather than for dialogue; it conveys ambience over information, like the voice can be with music. Characters are only named in the credits. This adds greatly to the sense of immediacy and forces the film back upon it’s core strengths – it has to show not tell.

 Silent throughout, Mohammed’s only contextualisation comes from his brief, semi-hallucinogenic flashbacks. Over the course of the film he both sins and is sinned against, but where did this cycle start? Is he an anti-imperialist freedom fighter, stolen from home, on the run from murder squads? A gun-toting terrorist fleeing justice? Or an innocent manipulated into battle by religious fanatics, then left freezing and alone? It could be any one of these...

...but I’m tempted to go with the third. An early scene seems to epitomise this, when an American interrogator confronts him with questions - but all he can hear is ringing in his ears from rocket fire. The sheer absence of communication becomes almost Babel-like, as if any common language has long since become confounded. There’s also echoes of the Frankenstein story, or at least the early parts of it, with the sole-befriender blind man in the woods replaced (significantly enough) by a mute woman. If Mohammed does monstrous things, which at one point cause him to break down and cry, perhaps he was made into that monster.

Like both comparisons above, ultimately the specificity is just a springboard from which to ask such questions of identity. In ’The Guardian’ Peter Bradshaw described it as “on the verge of delirium, a metaphysical drama.” Rooted in the political but aiming at the existential, the film is a kind of cousin to Steve McQueen’s ’Hunger.’

(After watching, I discovered a quote from Skolimowski which suggests even this interpretation might not be quite metaphysical enough: “I would leave the question of whether he is guilty or innocent open and ambiguous. The political aspects of the situation didn’t interest me: to me politics is a dirty game and I don’t want to voice my opinions. What is important is that the man who runs away is returning to the state of a wild animal, who has to kill in order to survive.”)

The infamous Vincent Gallo is well cast as Mohammed. But, true to form, he still manages to cement his crazy reputation. Though he performs Mohammed’s extreme feats of survival, running barefoot, eating wood ants and tree bark, the credits mention both “Mr. Gallo’s” water supplier and dietician!

But if ’Essential Killing’ slips the bounds of what might be expected of a political film, ’Route Irish’ dons the mantle with pride – just as you might expect from director Ken Loach. It covers similar ground to the recent TV drama ’Occupation’, the egregious law-defying role played by mercenaries in the carve-up of Iraq. When the company’s CEO announces he’s building the operation to the point where they could “sort out somewhere like Darfur”, it seems chillingly credible. Its unadulterated Blairism, the white man’s burden giving a faux liberal-intervention veneer, combined with the fundamental right of private corporations to make profits at everybody else’s expense.

Liverpudlian seems to be the media’s working class accent of choice, cropping up both in ’Occupation’ and here. I wasn’t entirely sure whether this was deliberate, but the film plays upon the twin popular stereotypes of Scousers. Frankie (played by comedian John Bishop) is the cheeky chappie, the affable rogue. Fergus (Mark Womack) is his sullen explosive Begbie-like mate, the one you hope Frankie won’t bring down the pub with him. But this then gets served the wrong way up. We find Frankie has died on operation before the film even starts and we must follow the brooding Fergus to get to the bottom of it, grief exacerbating his already troubled mind and lashing temper.

It could be the best Loach film for some while, expunging the wayward feelgood elements which marred ’Looking For Eric’. (As I grumbled about at the time.) In fact it’s lurching flashback structure almost relentlessly simulates the post-traumatic stress disorder which has become background noise to Fergus, now he is back to “shopping at Tescos.” (It might make for a good comparison with Shane Meadows’ ’Dead Man’s Shoes’,.)

Fergus’s volatility serves another function, keeping us on our toes. No-one outside of vested interests now supports the costly screw-up that was the invasion of Iraq, it’s a subject we made our minds up about some time ago, a closed book even as the occupation continues. So we need an ambiguous figure to frame it afresh. In an argument with Frankie’s widow, he swaps back and forth between attacking and defending the mercenaries, almost as if he can’t make the distinction.

Interestingly, paralleling ’Essential Killing’,there’s a theme of lack of communication. The film starts and ends with a series of unanswered voicemails. It could be argued that it raises more questions than it adequately deals with. Is male bonding a mere substitute for meaningful relations? With Frankie gone, does Fergus start a fling with his widow out of hope, desperation or just a grab for the most Frankie-like thing left? Is he really concerned with one dead mate more than a whole Iraqi family? But then the film is bookended by unanswered questions, and that seeming weakness may well be a strength. Shouldn’t political films attempt to corrode apparent certainties, rather than reassure them?

Loach films can sometimes have problems with endings, perhaps because they’re depicting situations which are by their nature unending. The one we get here is serviceable. It feints with a good mercenary/ bad mercenary structure, only to reveal at the end that the bosses dunnit. Credible enough of course, but hardly a twist. I was actually hoping for something different. What if Frankie’s death had been down to the very cause Fergus so adamantly refused earlier on, a simple case of “wrong place, wrong time”? His investigation could have revealed corruption and killings along the way, but a smoking gun pointing to every corpse except his buddy’s.

Reproducing the French film poster, for no other reason than it looks cool...

Tuesday 12 April 2011


Plot spoilers below!

It’s become almost ubiquitous to compare Duncan Jones’ new SF-style thriller to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ (as reviewed here). And points of comparison there are, though perhaps no more than to the lesser-cited ‘Twelve Monkeys’. But no small part of the reason for this may be the place the film occupies in the director’s career. Nolan had started on much more cerebral films like ‘Memento’ and ‘Insomnia’, then ‘Inception’ marked a far greater engagement with the mainstream. Similarly, Jones’ debut was the austere and low-key ‘Moon’. (Sort of micro-reviewed here.)

Such films are the cinematic equivalent of the organic sausages and gourmet burgers that populate modern-day pub menus. Once you shelled out for a prime cut of meat, or scrimped and plumped for the processed leftovers. But this apparent contradiction in terms is designed to signify a best-of-both-worlds combination. This is neither some generic fast-food thriller, nor an indigestibly good-for-you art flick. The poster tag “from the visionary director of ‘Moon’” becomes a selling-point, even for those who skipped ‘Moon’ because they thought it too short of explosions... probably especially for them. It’s a sign they’ve got a fully-fledged gourmet chef in to flip those burgers.

Of course there’s nothing automatically wrong about this, and indeed man does not live by Tarkovsky alone. But there has to be something genuinely gourmet to the burger, or else we’re sending it back to the kitchen.

And indeed, there are points of comparison to both ‘Inception’ and ‘Moon’. All three offer variants on the same central paradox, perhaps exemplified here the most neatly of all. Our hero, Captain Colter Stevens, is trapped inside a cannister, only able to talk to the girl (Captain Colleen Goodwin) through a monitor screen. (And even she is not necessarily to be trusted.) The implication is that between us falls the shadow. Yet at the same time the self is violable, the ‘besieged castle’ of the mission’s monicker. While it is hard to reach out to the person next to you, ‘they’ can get right inside your head. The film’s landscape overlaps with ‘Inception’ to the point of becoming interchangeable – shiny city blocks like architects drawings come to life, swooping bullet trains, offices built almost entirely out of shiny glass yet devoid of windows. The base’s webcam is so repeatedly reiterated it must be onscreen more than some of the characters.

It certainly has an ingenious premise, which makes you wish we knew less about movies upfront these days and could encounter it at the same time as Stevens. (Click here if you really don’t know it and want to.) At this point the film it doesn’t seem to resemble is ‘Groundhog Day.’ There the premise was almost capital-B Buddhist, about leaving the wheel, about living your life over until you had learnt enough to move on. This is more like a video game you get to play over, returning from each ‘death’ until you finally win. The figure in the tank, little more than a wired-up brain, is the game player, motionlessly oblivious to his surroundings, intent only upon the virtual world.

We tend to think of ‘video game movies’ as a derogatory term, shorthand for shoot-‘em-ups, films released only so the video-game tie-in can follow (or quite possible the reverse). I suspect this may work like the infamous accusation of “comic book plotting”, where those who never play video games only notice when their influence is at its most negative and superficial. (For example, I do that.) But, bypassing such paraphernalia and going for the formal qualities of video games, we actually end up in an interesting place.

Though it brandies guns and offers us explosions, these don’t set the tone and the film feels much more of a whodunnit. The thrust is thrown upon the train carriage where the suspects are all lined up - like ‘Murder On the Orient Express’, except with Chicago, bombs and body-swapping replacing Russia, knives and Albert Finney. For that matter, there’s even two whodunnits for your buck. Who the terrorist is on the train, and what’s the secret of Stevens’ origins, the subject being continually eluded at Besieged Castle?

Unfortunately, the two then tend to compete for screen time- and it’s the train which loses out. First we’re told we’re getting a clock-racer; every time our hero reboards the train, time is reset only in the virtual world. Real time goes forwards another eight minutes, while the next terrorist attack is imminent.

The film rather tips its hand when we’re given a montage scene. Earlier events had been more or less in real time, pressing home the clock-ticking motif. Any clue Stevens picks up, he has to do in front of us, nothing offscreen or up the movie’s sleeve. But the montage scene is all about the effect of ceaselessly being sent back upon Stevens, the strangeness combined with the pressure. The bomb on the train is really just a MacGuffin for a psychological study. (Plus our hero’s detection method more-or-less becomes to accuse people at random. Maybe not such a bad method when they will lose all memory of this inside of eight minutes, but hardly the stuff of Sherlock Holmes.)

 So it’s not so surprising that when the bomber is finally found, through a combination of luck and montage, he has little of interest to say for himself. There’s a Stars-and-Stripes bombing case and a quick gag about “racial profiling” to suggest the terrorist’s a Bible-bashing Militia man, more Timothy McVeigh than Osama Bin Laden. Is this the Hollywood liberalism so decried by Tea Party types, or did they just figure a suspect in a ‘Team America’ beard would give the game away? Whichever, his stated motives are so perfunctory they’d have been better off left as live mysteries in our minds.

Of course, it may be I simply bet wrongly upon the film’s course. But alas, the film’s chosen direction isn’t any more interesting. Turns out our hero is being used... get that, used... by the Corporation. A revelation rather undermined by being the very thing we’d suspected from the beginning - few films, after all, reveal Corporations to be secretly nice. (While ‘Moon’ had an almost identical plot twist.)

There are attempts to stir up some War On Terror style debate. (What if the people on the train were the people in the Twin Towers, now an expendable asset in a bigger ongoing war?) But this is rather undermined by the panto-villain playing of the base’s boss, Dr. Rutledge. He even has a Blofeld-style sinister accent and disfigurement. In short we get two villains, one characterised only by clichés, and the other not at all.

Abigal Nussbaum is correct to point out that making the bad boss a civilian, and his doubting henchman a military woman, is both cheat and cliché. (Besides, in the real world wouldn’t an oath-bound military officer be less likely to break ranks over an act of conscience? You’d get a court-martial, not just a refused reference.) And K -Punk is correct that we should be wary of taking at face value Hollywood’s willingness to paint corporations as evil.

Moreover, and alas, the way to depict corporations on film was already done perfectly in ’Moon’. Briefly, the rule is not to – to just show the results of their self-aggrandising actions. (Similarly, I always liked the way that in the first ’Alien’ film the Corporation appeared only as calculating instructions on a monitor screen. Alas, this restriction was reneged on for the sequels.)

They are, after all, faceless institutions who never care about us because they never meet us - indeed barely belong to the same reality system as us. Legally speaking, a corporation is a person, but they are more like a logo transformed into a ravenous, all-consuming monster. Even if you were to burst into a board meeting you would not really reach a corporation’s heart or brain, merely come across some of the more senior staff while they were passing through. Though the panto villainy on show here is egregious and absurd, it is to some degree the inevitable result of missing this essential point.

It may not have thought it needed it, but it’s notable that once the bomb plot is essentially resolved the film unravels. It breaks almost all its own rules and reverses its tone to serve up a happy ending, to a nadir of chutzpah beyond even the original version of ‘Blade Runner’. Pretty much everyone agrees the film falls apart at the point where the central ‘eight minute’ deadline is busted. But I was already having my doubts when the hero was allowed his one last mission, in defiance of all mission protocols. (He doesn’t quite say “I need this!” but he may as well have done.)

‘Inception’s achilles heel was dream worlds which could never escape the ‘architecture’ of video games – guns, strongholds, secret plans in safes to “take” like enemy Kings. ‘Source Code’, conversely, uses the formal devices of video games to create an invigorating premise – then succumbs to the basest of movie clichés. It becomes a tick-box exercise in the worst kind of Christian Vogler’s accountancy of storytelling. Treating the world like it’s your personal psychological terrain? Check! Atonement with the father? Check! Following your bliss and living for today? Check! Getting the girl as a direct result of this? Check!(As Martin Lewis of Strange Horizons puts it: “hello sky, hello trees; hello train, hello terrorists.”)

Maybe someone will one day make a film which honours the smart and enticing premise we start with here. As it is, you’re really better off walking out three-quarters through and making up your own ending.

PS: I did think of writing a reiterative review to celebrate the film’s structure, forever going back to the start again when some new idea struck me. (“This film is a whodunnit... wait, let’s start over...”) But in the end I couldn’t be bothered...

Sunday 10 April 2011


"THE BIG CUBE: Annual increase in wealth of the world’s richest man.
THE SMALL CUBES: [Barely visible in the photo as orange dots bouncing around the big black cube] Average UK incomes
THE RATIO: 500,000 to 1”

... so, in short, we’re all in this together.

Photo taken at the recent anti-cuts  ’March For the Alternative’ on March 26th. As well as the sheer size of the demo (longer than it’s own route, meaning many people were still starting after it had officially finished) it was marked by a high level of creativity. As well as the cube above there was a giant Trojan horse (presumably left outside the House of Commons after the demo was over), a Banker carried on a sedan chair... much else. Of course there were also the pack-drilled Trots with their inevitable “slogan slogan slogan, SHOUT SHOUT SHOUT.” But for once the day didn’t belong to them.

Monday 4 April 2011


...concluding our look at this current Royal Academy exhibition, on until 7th April. (First part here.)

Un-wowed: Landscape Lies Uncaptured

The next room “encourages us to step figuratively onto the ground itself” as “sculptors began to challenge the convention that sculpture had to be physically present in the gallery.” But rather than unifying around this concept the room splits quite neatly into two. The first group definitely are physically present in the gallery, but look like they’ve merely taken something from the outside world and dumped it here. Richard Long, for example, is rather appropriately named because ‘Chalk Line’ (1984, below) does exactly what it says on the tin. Looking at these tiresome works is rather like being inside Brian Sewell’s id, they’re like some gormless parody of ‘modern art’, like Duchamp’s readymades without the wit or audacity. We’ve seen before how Moore’s sculpture grew in scale the less he had to say. These pieces give us only the scale.

 Happily, the other half of the room is a little less empty. These mostly consist of photos or postcards of something outside the gallery. Rachel Harrison’s ‘Contact Sheet (Should Home Windows)’ (1996, below) merely photographs rubbish bags piled against a bin, yet in such as way as to suggest at a Moore-like figure. Rather than make just another work of art, it’s cooler of course to nudge our vision until anything around us can be seen as art. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then why not empower that eye?

But you only really get the suggestion of the figure from the gallery context, you’d walk past the bags in the street just as blithely as do the figures in the photo – in short, we need to stay in the gallery even if the work doesn’t. You can’t help but feel that sculpture is less being modernised and more being abandoned.

As much as this room sparks interest (which frankly isn’t much), it doesn’t come from the stated theme but a more sublimated one – the change from stasis to motion. If ancient art was about the eternal, mostly realised through its sculpture, surely modern society is defined by flux. Unlike many commentators, who seemed to mostly fixate on what wasn’t there, this was one of the few times I felt something to be conspicuous by its absence. Where is the kinetic art? Yet, from an (admittedly perfunctory) on-line search, I couldn’t find one British adherent of this movement. Do we Brits just not do motion? Must our sculpture just lie back and think of England?

Wow 3: The Great Outdoors (Turned Indoors)

The theme of the next room is the vitrine, or glass display case. The American artist Jeff Koons is held to be the instigator of this: “Jeff Koons’ vitrine creates a sealed space within the gallery, its cubic nature allowing it to be faithfully reproduced as sculpture.” Antipathy to Koons may be blinding me here, but surely the Surrealists were busy with their cabinets of curiosities before him?

The room is dominated by a large Damien Hirst work, ‘Let’s Eat Outdoors Today’ (1990/1, below), which has been about as ubiquitous in the media as Hamilton and Pasmore have been absent. As the poster boy of Brit Art, I have never had any time for Hirst. He is quoted later in the exhibition commenting “any artist’s big fear is being ignored.” So... not losing inspiration, running out of things to say or do but being ignored. It’s the artist as celebrity, generating headline-chasing notoriety, as Robert Hughes comments “functioning like a commercial brand.” As the Stuckists acknowledge, “Hirst’s work does mirror society [but that] is not its strength but its weakness.” Battle lines have never been more cleanly drawn since Cable Street.

I absolutely loved this work.

 A standard barbeque set-up, complete with picnic plates and cuts of meat, has maggots released into it on the opening night, which turn into flies and start to feast and lay eggs. By the time I was there, the table was thickly carpeted with black corpses, whose brothers obliviously buzzed and fed on. Reminiscent of much of the recent Gustav Metzger exhibition, it’s a process-based piece dedicated to entropy, parodying the supposed permanence of a work of art.

This does admittedly mean that the best place for this work isn’t behind the paywall of an exhibition. Were it housed in a lobby or busy throughway, somewhere people pass recurrently, they would be able to take in this process of decomposition. Though photos of it appear elsewhere, you mostly get this essential sense through the exercise of imagination. (This is a duplicate of a work first shown in 1991, but I couldn’t find anywhere where or how the original was displayed.)

But there’s also another dimension. It’s partly reminiscent of ‘The Birds’ in the way the familiar is transformed into the threatening, like tuning into an unnoticed background noise whose hum then can’t be switched off. Though clearly in some way about the return of the repressed, there’s a necessary nebulousness to it, a sense that to pin the image to anything too specific would rob it of its evocativeness.

Yet, while Du Maurier’s novel could be successfully transplanted to America for the Hitchcock film, flies are as British as they come... Hirst is described as “peculiarly British” and, perhaps of all the works on show here, this is the most British. It is precisely because of our narrow summers that getting the barbeque out of the shed becomes such a ritual – the squeaky greeting of the title, the overly familiar white plastic chairs, the little pots of salt and pepper. Flies are persistent but peripheral irritants to all this, they don’t normally swarm like locusts or sting like mosquitos. The result is a work which is not strange but strangely familiar. It reminded me of Pinter’s celebrated phrase, “the weasel in the cocktail cabinet.”

Un-wowed by Value:

The final room, ‘Value Systems’, examines “the difficulty of maintaining a radical stance outside the dominant value system.” Which is of course an excellent question. Alas, though, it is not one necessarily addressed by the room.

The afore-mentioned Gustav Metzger now appears with a wall of Page Three girls, virtually as ubiquitous as those flies, updated daily with each new copy of ‘The Sun.’ Seeing these photos lined up together, not served up consecutively, does throw up their trite formality. There’s basically three poses – hands by sides, hands behind head, one hand doing each. Characterful faces are not sought after as they’re not what we’re supposed to be looking at.

But this is an update of a work from 1977, and unfortunately it shows. The point is presumably how prevalent “the female nude” is in art, and how these photos are a reflection of that merely aimed at another class group. But porn is now so ubiquitous that it’s not at all surprising to see it in a gallery. Like the recent reshowing of COUM Transmissions ‘Prostitution’ it feels dated, trapped in time, more removed from us than the vitrines. The Guerilla Girls have offered a pithier and more vital take on such themes. (Which means, in a supreme irony, l liked Hirst’s Metzger-like piece more than Metzger’s own!)

But Metzger’s piece is at least of a time, if not ours. Opposite him is a wall of clippings of reviews and news accounts of the exhibition. We’re seemingly asked to thrill to the modernity of these being incorporated into the show while it is still on, creating a post-modern feedback loop, but if anything it just displays a redundant print fixation. It might have worked better if less ostentatiously displayed, or if it had invited some form of audience interaction. (Perhaps inviting you to rearrange the clippings, according to your favour.)

This exhibition was often poorly received by critics, accusing it of two kinds of straying. The first was from sculpture itself. Hirst’s vitrines, for example, are they sculpture or installation works? Frankly, I don’t care. This exhibition showed them to me, and I was glad to see them.

It’s also accused of straying from the greatest hits and, implied by association, failing at a through-line. As Ossian Ward grumbled in ’Time Out’: “Rather than a heavyweight survey of moulding and assembling, 'Modern British Sculpture' is instead a rough-hewn slab from which we have to carve out our own meaningful history and lineage of the form.”

He says it like a bad thing, but in every other way he’s right. The show is best thought of as a mixtape rather than some ’Reader’s Digest’ crammer of the classics. Many of the names people complain about being absent don’t appeal to me anyway (Amish Kapoor or Rachel Whiteread), but more importantly the very point of a mixtape is to stir it up and show you something new. You may have less in the way of pantheonic tick-lists to learn, but it’s more stimulating and at times it’s even fun.

The lack of a through-line admittedly means there’s little to hold your attention in the sections that are less to your liking, and the show’s so diverse that it’s unlikely that many will take to all of it. For me it went from awesome to risible and back several times. But at the end of the day it packs a good three (perhaps four) wows. Which isn’t such a bad bang for your buck...

Coming soon! For the shame of it, more out-of-date stuff...